The fact that a situation is ubiquitous does not
absolve us from examining it. On the contrary, we must examine it for the very
reason that it is or can be the fate of each and every one of us.
Daughter: What does "objective" mean?
Father: Well. It means that you look very hard at those things which you choose to look at.
On December 1, 1991, Elie Wiesel presented former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with the Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award. The Award honors individuals who survived the Holocaust, "and then somehow contributed—through their work, writing, art, or philanthropy—to the welfare of the Jewish people and humanity." The announcement of the awards ceremony, which took place at a State of Israel Bonds dinner, appeared in the "Chronicle" column of the New York Times. It merited only a short paragraph in the back pages of the paper, and seemed, on the surface, entirely unremarkable—a simple case of Nobel Prize winners patting each other on the back, famous men gathering together to praise each other.
Wiesel is a professional Holocaust survivor. Beginning with the publication of
his autobiographical novel, Night (1960), and continuing through his long career as an author and activist, Wiesel has promoted the memory of the genocidal campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews. Terrence Des Pres, who has written in strong support of Wiesel's work, noted, "As a survivor and a witness [Wiesel] is accorded a respect bordering on reverence." Through his career Wiesel has confirmed his belief that the survivor-witness bears a terrible burden—a duty to both the living and the dead to testify, to tell the world of the horrors he has seen. At the same time, Wiesel believes, testimony is never adequate, that it can never bridge the gap between language and experience: "Could the wall be scaled? Could the reader be brought to the other side? I knew the answer to be No, and yet I also knew that No had to become Yes." Wiesel has long insisted that "those who have not lived through the experience will never know," and he laments the days when discussion of the Holocaust was "still in the domain of sacred memory, was considered taboo, reserved for initiates."
Henry Kissinger emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1938 with his parents and his brother. Kissinger was fifteen years old when he departed Europe for America, and he never experienced the hardships of the ghettos or concentration camps of the Third Reich. His claim to the title of "Holocaust survivor" derives from the fact that twenty-six members of his family were killed at Auschwitz. Such broad inclusiveness calls into question the value of the categorical distinction, since so many American Jews might also quality as "survivors."
The irony of Elie Wiesel designating Henry Kissinger—who wasn't "there"—a fellow survivor is heightened by Kissinger's involvement in another genocidal campaign, one which Wiesel publicly deplored. Wiesel visited Cambodia in 1980 and wrote of his sympathy for the victims of the Pol Pot regime: "How could a Jew like myself, with experiences and memories like mine, stay at home and not go to the aid of an entire people? ... As a Jew I felt the need to tell these despairing men and women that we understood them; that we shared their pain; that we understood their distress because we remembered a time when we as Jews confronted total indifference...." By 1980 it was generally accepted in
reputable academic and intellectual circles that the campaign waged by Nixon
and Kissinger to bomb Cambodia back into the Stone Age had destabilized the
Cambodian government and caused the political and economic upheaval that
enabled the Khmer Rouge to seize power.
Though Wiesel's decision to grant Kissinger honorary survivor status does not mark the first occasion Wiesel has chosen to engage in morally questionable public behavior (at the height of the Gulf War he honored George Bush with a humanitarian award on behalf of the B'nai B'rith) it is certainly the first time that he has bestowed the title of survivor on someone who spent the years of the Nazi regime in such comfortable circumstances. It seems to me that Wiesel has, finally, completely unfounded himself. For if Henry Kissinger is a survivor, what then is Elie Wiesel? The difference between the two men is now, apparently, only a matter of degreea question of which one survived "worse" horrors.
I begin with the story of Wiesel and Kissinger because it illustrates the problem that lies at the heart of this book. In order to understand the implications of Wiesel's action, we must look backwards to the time before his connection to the Holocaust went unsaid. We must remember that Elie Wiesel was not always already Elie Wiesel. We must do this even though the best and the brightest of the critics of Holocaust literature warn us against it.
To read a book by Elie Wiesel is one thing; to read it with knowledge of the man as a survivor and a witness, and further to read it with at least some knowledge of the ghettos, the cattle cars, and the killing centers, is another, very different experience.... Much of the time the full impact of his prose depends on knowing who is speaking and what he
is speaking of, while neither is actually clarified.
How does one learn "who" Wiesel is, and gain "some" knowledge of the Holocaust? And which "who" and which "some" are the right ones? During and immediately after the Holocaust, information and testimony came from thousands of survivors and witnesses (like Wiesel himself, who was not yet already "Elie Wiesel"). There were many voices and none of them were famous yet. By what process was Wiesel selected from ten thousand other? How did Wiesel become the "who" he is, the voice of "the" survivor?
These questions about Elie Wiesel raise deeper questions: What is the connection between individual psychic trauma and cultural representations of the traumatic event? What does the act of testimony, of "bearing witness" mean to an individual survivor, to a community of survivors? How are testimonies interpreted by different audiences? What does the designation "survivor" mean, and who has the right to confer that title? What happens when a survivor's story is retold (and revised) by a writer who is not a survivor? How are survivor's stories adapted to fit and then contained within the dominant structure of social, cultural and political discourse?
It is difficult to articulate such questions, and impossible to answer them within the framework of traditional academic disciplines. I draw from a wide variety of methodological approaches and use the analytic techniques devised by scholars in "area" studies—women's studies, African American studies, Holocaust studies, and cultural studies. In such interdisciplinary work, boundaries are fluid and context becomes all-important. This is not, therefore, a study of all survivors in all circumstances. I do not believe in universally applicable, "normative" models. I am an Americanist, with a specialty in post-World War II U.S. culture, and I draw my examples from that place and time.
This study focuses on three distinct traumatic events, and their representation in contemporary U.S. culture: the Holocaust, the Viet Nam war, and sexual abuse of women and children. On the face of it, this may appear an outrageous comparison—as if, perhaps, I chose my subject matter on the basis of its sensational nature. This is not the case. My awareness of the connections between these events has evolved gradually, and sometimes painfully over a period of years. My decision to complete this book was made with full knowledge of its controversial nature. My aim is to force readers to question the "sacred" nature of the Holocaust as subject matter, to encourage them to be critical of the tendency to elevate the American veteran of the Viet Nam war to the status of "hero," and to acknowledge the existence of an ongoing campaign of sexual violence and oppression waged by many men against the women and children of the United States.
addition to insisting on the importance of contextualizing my subject, I
believe that it is only fair to the reader to provide enough information for
her to place me in context. In the
words of Holocaust scholar Phillip Hallie:
My way of understanding good and evil... involves proper names and particular circumstances, and a felt obligation to look closely at these. One of those proper names is my own. Narratives need narrators, and storytellers have much to do with the nature and style of their stories. For me, ethics is partly a matter of autobiography, partly a matter of history and philosophy. Personal candor is part of narrative ethics for me.
addition to the public information on my curriculum vitae, I feel the following
facts are important for my reader to know.
I was born in 1960. I am a white woman. I am a Jew, born of Jewish parents, and brought up in their completely secular household. I was raised in a multiethnic, multiracial extended family—my mother's father divorced his Jewish wife and married my Episcopalian Puerto Rican step-grandmother, who was already the mother of several children from her previous marriage. I was exposed to elements of Puerto Rican and black culture, as well as to the ways in which racism is manifested in a close-knit multiracial family. I was sexually abused as a twelve-year-old by adult friends of my maternal grandfather. I am bisexual. I was raised in an upper-class environment, with all of the privileges that entails.
I have offered the reader this information not in the spirit of confession or testimony, but in the attempt to live up to the standards set by other feminist critics, such as African-American theorist Valerie Smith, who suggests that "if cultural productions acknowledge the relation of our theoretical work to our personal circumstances, then we will be able to expand the radical possibilities of our scholarship." I consider it necessary not only to
admit, but to define my subjectivity—such definition makes the sort of Gramscian "good sense" that political scientist Joan Cocks describes:
Good sense is thought that is self-knowing....It is self-critical....It is finally... self-active, fashioning its own independent world-view, and working to make that view systematic, unified, and rigorous....The cultivation of such self-knowing, self-critical, self-active thought is... a preliminary condition for people giving a conscious direction to their own activities and taking "an active part in the creation of world history."
Like Cocks, I believe that "cultural-political theory inquires primarily into consciously lived life" and that such an inquiry "makes its major moves back and forth between some individual train of through or action or sensibility and the larger, collective, political and cultural world." Any act of cultural criticism, in this estimation, ought to be a self-conscious act—one in which the critic acknowledges that her choice of subject has meaning, and that a choice of subject is itself open to interpretation. As Terrence Des Pres observed, "There are always, for any subject under the sun, worldly conditions to be met—social, political, cultural—when asking: Why this event? At some point, also, one must ask: Why men?" I have attempted to make this question—Why me?—integral to my approach.
I believe the responsibility of the cultural critic is to present a continuous challenge to the assumptions upon which any communal consensus is based—to insist that nothing go without saying. When cultural critics seek to expose and then question the rationales for specific community practices, we situate ourselves in opposition to dominant discourse. We question our own beliefs and the beliefs of others. We appeal to people's "good sense," and we measure our success by the amount of argument we generate. We actively work towards the breakdown of consensus, at which point, "assumptions that could previously be taken for granted become one set of theories among others, ideas that you have to argue for rather than presuppose as given." Such a process is not infinitely
reductive, nor does it promote the notion that all theories are equally valid.
Unlike the most playful of the deconstructionists, we do not seek to prove that there is, finally, no solid place to stand. We have moved beyond the discovery of the reductive power of the question "why?" Every human being possesses a core set of beliefs rooted in faith. Cultural critics seek to establish a mode of discourse in which each person can first uncover and acknowledge his or her beliefs, and then test them, compare them to the beliefs of others, understand their implications, and modify them to reflect a changing understanding of the world. Our end goal is a community based on the full and informed participation of all its members—a community where difference is not only accepted but cherished because it provides us with new frames of reference and new ways of understanding ourselves.
The subject of this work is psychic trauma; its cultural-political inquiry moves back and forth between the effects of trauma upon individual survivors and the manner in which that trauma is reflected and revised in the larger, collective political and cultural world. In the cases of the Holocaust, the Viet Nam war, and the campaign of sexual violence waged against women and children, I examine three strategies of cultural coping—mythologization, medicalization, and disappearance. Mythologization works by reducing a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives (twice- and thrice-told tales that come to represent "the story" of the trauma) turning it from a frightening and uncontrollable event into a contained and predictable narrative. Medicalization focuses our gaze upon the victims of trauma, positing that they suffer from an "illness" that can be "cured" within existing or slightly modified structures of institutionalized medicine and psychiatry. Disappearance—a refusal to admit to the existence of a particular kind of trauma—is usually accomplished by undermining the credibility of the victim. In the traumas I examine, these strategies work in combination to effect the cultural codification of the trauma.
events are written and rewritten until they become codified and narrative form
gradually replaces content as the focus of attention. For example, the
Holocaust has become a metonym, not for the actual series of events that took place in Germany and the occupied territories before and during World War II, but for the set of symbols that reflect the formal codification of that experience. There is a recognizable set of literary and filmic conventions that comprise the "Holocaust" text. These conventions are so well-defined that they may be reproduced in endless recombination to provide us with a steady stream of additions to the genre:
[I]n the minds of some, the "Holocaust Novel" may now be seen as an available subgenre of contemporary fiction, to be written by anyone who is on to and can master the "formula." ... [Readers of this literature] will be taken rather swiftly and effortlessly through the whole "pattern": the prewar normalcy and the coming of trouble; the beginning of a propaganda campaign against the Jews and racial and religious incitement against them; the incipient threats at first against a few, and then openly against the many; the bureaucratization of terror and the growing "banality of evil"; the exploitation of slave labor and the emergence of the child smugglers; the omnipresent disease and hunger; the imposed quotas; the strikes and other temporary shows of resistance; the roundups and transports; the camps; the corpses; and a few survivors. None of this is "easy," but neither is it beyond the reach of a competent writer.
Once codified, the traumatic experience becomes a weapon in another battle, the struggle for political power. "The role of political power," as Foucault explains, "... is perpetually to re-inscribe this relation through a form of unspoken warfare; to re-inscribe it in social institutions, in economic inequalities, in language, in the bodies themselves of each and every one of us."
The speech of survivors is highly politicized. If "telling it like it was" threatens the status quo, powerful political, economic, and social forces will pressure survivors either to keep their silence or to revise their stories. If the survivor community is a marginal one, their voices will be drowned out by those with the influence and resources to silence them, and to trumpet a revised version of their trauma to the public. Less marginal trauma survivors can sometimes band together as a community and retain a measure of control over the representation of their experience. Much of my work focuses upon the interaction between the survivor as individual, the community of survivors, and the wielders of political power.
witness is an aggressive act. It is born out of a refusal to bow to outside
pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict
rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain rather than to
submit to the seductive pull of revision and repression. Its goal is change.
The battle over the meaning of a traumatic experience is fought in the arena of
political discourse, popular culture, and scholarly debate. The outcome of this
battle shapes the rhetoric of the dominant culture and influences future
If survivors retain control over the interpretation of their trauma, then can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure. If the dominant culture manages to appropriate the trauma and can codify it on its own terms, the status quo will remain unchanged. On a social as well as an individual psychological level, the penalty for repression is repetition. In Daniel Goleman's words: "On the one hand, we forget we have done this before and, on the other, do not quite realize what we are doing again. The self-deception is complete."
The Holocaust serves as a paradigm case, demonstrating the appropriation and codification of a traumatic event. Des Pres writes, "At some unconscious level, the image of the Holocaust is with us—a memory which haunts, a sounding board for all subsequent evil—in the back of the mind... for all of us now living: we, the inheritors." What is "with us," however, is not the memory of the massive and complex set of historical and cultural events that comprised the Third Reich, but rather a distilled and reified set of images for which "Holocaust" has become the metonym. "Holocaust" is a signifier for, among other things, the Nazi genocidal campaign against the Jews; the reign of evil upon the face of the earth; and the rationale for the existence of the State of Israel. Drawn from religious terminology and spelled with a capital "h," the term Holocaust is set apart from descriptions of other man-made evils, such as slavery, genocide, and oppression. A proper noun, its uniqueness is emphasized every time it is uttered. Yet, as literary critic James Young observes, it is "ironic that once an event is perceived to be without precedent, without adequate analogy, it would in itself become a kind of precedent for all that follows: a new figure against which subsequent experiences are measured and grasped....The process is inevitable, for as new experiences are necessarily grasped and represented in the frame of remembered past experiences, 'incomparable' experiences like the Holocaust will always be made—at least rhetorically—comparable."
The force of the Holocaust as precedent and yardstick to measure trauma in contemporary U.S. culture, and the influence of the Holocaust survivor on the perceived legitimacy and interpretation of the statements of survivors of other traumas has never, to my knowledge, been discussed in print before. To seriously undertake such a project, we must disregard the cultural prohibition against profaning the sacred. We must demystify the Holocaust, reducing it, once again, to a series of historical and cultural events on par with other cultural and historical events and therefore undeserving of a capital "H," except as a sort of casual shorthand, as we speak of the Enlightenment, or the Renaissance. With Miriam Greenspan, I believe that "The view of the Holocaust as Sacred Event... goes along with a decided ignorance of the forces of fascism and anti-Semitism, not only as they existed in World War II Europe, but as they exist in the world today." However unpopular, I consider it imperative to reduce the Holocaust from "holy object" to "something which happened in history" if we are to understand, for example, exactly what George Bush meant when he called Saddam Hussein "another Hitler," and why this naming seemed to serve as a justification for going to war against Iraq. How has the "Holocaust" been invoked and represented in the U.S.? What is the interaction between the Holocaust survivor and mainstream U.S. culture? What is implied when Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel presents Hitler-invoking George Bush with a humanitarian award at the peak of Bush's war against Iraq?
I have grappled with these questions, I have discovered that it is imperative
to make a distinction between those individuals who have been traumatized in a
particular way and those individuals who have not suffered such traumatization.
I have also found it necessary to make distinctions between members of groups
subject to systematic traumatization, and members of groups not subject to such
persecution, as well as to account for movement from one group to another, or
simultaneous membership in two or more groups. I have tried to create a
coherent structure for analyzing different sociocultural patterns of
traumatization and reassimilation, and to account for complex social
In a social system that supports the systematic oppression and persecution of a particular minority group (such as Jews in Nazi Germany), the victims of persecution have a limited set of available options. They may capitulate, which will result in continued suffering and perhaps the eventual death of all members of the targeted group if the intent of the oppressor is genocide. They may resist by appealing to existing legal, moral, or ethical structures in the dominant society (i.e., litigation, religious arguments) and use tactics such as passive resistance or nonviolence. They may respond with force—intending to change the power structure. Or they may attempt to escape the confines of the oppressive social structure, either by relocating to a less hostile environment or by "passing" as a member of a nontargeted group.
Within a society, there may be several targeted groups, whose members are subject to traumatization in greater or lesser degrees. Targeted groups can and should be examined both in relation to the dominant group and to each other. In the United States, Jews are only one of several targeted groups. Though discriminated against, Jews do not suffer from systematic economic oppression and are rarely targets of violent racism. Other targeted groups—women and racial minorities, for example—are at higher risk of traumatic assault.
Membership in the targeted group is determined on the basis of externally imposed definitions (i.e., classification and stereotyping by race, class, gender, religious affiliation), which are created and enforced by dominant social groups, and which—once created—are often internalized by members of targeted groups and incorporated into their individual self-concepts. A characteristic of targeting is that persons falling within the dominant group's definition are subject to the same treatment, whether or not their self-definition includes membership in the targeted group. For example, Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany were targeted based on "blood" relationships defined by the Nazis and in the Nuremberg Race Laws. In the U.S. (both in the antebellum period and, in some states, into the present time) blackness was also determined by ancestry. Self-definition played no role in such social classification.
In a situation of ongoing oppression or involving the risk of traumatic violence, many members of a targeted group will be victimized (some repeatedly), while other members will escape physical harm. In such circumstances, the category of trauma "survivor" is problematic, since every traumatized member of an oppressed community is aware of the potential for repeated victimization. During a period in which there is no safe refuge, the designation of "survivor" is always temporary and conditional. Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany existed in a state of ongoing oppression. Jews in America are no longer members of a community at risk. Soldiers were at risk in Viet Nam during the war, but U.S. veterans are not targets of systematic violence in the United States. Women and children in the U.S. comprise a community under siege.
readers will accept the notion that Jews and Gypsies are members of oppressed
groups. Many others will be familiar with and supportive of feminist arguments
that women and children also belong in this category. However, the mechanism by
which soldiers are systematically exposed to traumatic assault and then
reassimilated into U.S. society as veterans requires explication. During the
Viet Nam war, men from both targeted and untargeted groups enlisted or were
drafted, and were sent to Viet Nam. Those exposed to combat or other
life-threatening events, and those exposed to the carnage resulting from combat
were traumatized. But combat soldiers, though subordinate to their military superiors and frequently at the mercy of their enemies, still possess a life-or-death power over other people. Much recent literature—popular, clinical and academic—places the combat soldier simply in the victim's role; helpless in the face of war, and then helpless to readjust from the war experience upon his return home. Feminist critics should be quick to voice their disapproval of an interpretation so drastically at odds with reality. The soldier in combat is both victim and victimizer; dealing death as well as risking it. Soldiers carry guns; they point them at people and shoot to kill. Members of oppressed groups, by contrast, often do not control the tools of violence.
The fact that the "community" of combat soldiers exists only during wartime, and that these veterans of the U.S. war in Viet Nam returned to a society that did not view them as a distinct, targeted group did not prevent them from voluntarily associating. American survivors of the Viet Nam war formed a new, self-defined group—the Viet Nam war veteran—based upon their common traumatic experience. They identified themselves as distinct not only from civilians, but from veterans of previous wars, founding their own organizations and often refusing to join the large "inclusive" traditional veterans organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
group identification is sometimes quite strong. However, over time it tends to
deteriorate, especially when membership in the post-trauma group spans both
targeted and nontargeted groups in contemporary society. Current group
interests and status will increasingly take precedence over survivor group
identification. As group cohesiveness diminishes, social and political
pressures upon the survivor group begin to take their toll on members. This
process can be traced in the history of the radical organization, Vietnam
Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in 1967.
As the number of American soldiers in Viet Nam decreased in the early 1970s, membership in the VVAW (along with antiwar activism in general) waned. In the mid-1970s the shrinking VVAW was shattered by an ideological battle between radical and liberal members. After a contested election in 1978 and a lawsuit between feuding parties, the energies of both sides were exhausted. The liberal wing won the right to use the VVAW name, and the much diminished radical wing was granted the appellation VVAW-AI (Anti-Imperialist). Both groups were quickly overshadowed by the new Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), founded in 1978 by Robert Muller. Since the late 1980s, VVA has itself split into two organizations—Muller left VVA because he resisted its increasing conservatism and founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. This secession also initiated a lawsuit, which left the VVA with the bulk of the funding and pauperized VVAF. By 1995 the VVA had more than 44,000, but it numbered far fewer Viet Nam veterans than either the American Legion (750,000) or the VFW (50,000). However they perceive of themselves,
Viet Nam war veterans no longer function as a coherent, self-identified group
with a distinct agenda, but have instead gravitated as individuals to identify
with groups that best remember the interests of their particular combination of
race, class and gender.
The struggle for self-definition enacted throughout the history of Viet Nam veterans' organizations is both reflected in and shaped by popular, political and scholarly discourse. Like the experience of the Holocaust survivor, the experience of the American combat soldier in Viet Nam has been revised and codified—survivor testimony has been overwhelmed and revised by the dominant culture. Tom Cruise's character in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July completely overshadows (and defines) the "real" Ron Kovic. Today, one can purchase "The Vietnam Experience" for $14.99 an installment from Time-Life Books, Inc. Cultural theorist Timothy Luke writes:
The packaging of ideological collaboration here is highly sophisticated, promising that, "If you were there, this is your story. If you weren't here's your chance to learn what it was really like...." When such "history" can be purchased on a monthly installment plan from a corporate image factory, it signals the final colonization of its ideopolitical significance by the society of the spectacle. Stacked along the aisles of collective choice in its bright attractive packaging, next to the comparably priced and packaged "World War II" product, "the Vietnam experience" thus acquires new shelf life as another over-the-counter nostrum for young Americans anxious to keep their world safe for democracy.
The Viet Nam war has taken its place on the shelf beside "the Good War" as a noble chapter in U.S. popular history. And, as all such chapters must, it presents the normative Viet Nam war "experience," implicitly informing the reader: "If you were there, then this is your story—and if it isn't your story, you weren't really there."
shape of public discourse has changed a great deal since the late 1960s and
early 1970s. Then, comparisons were regularly made between American soldiers
committing atrocities in Viet Nam and German soldiers committing atrocities during the Nazi regime—critics of U.S. policy who invoked the phrase "war crimes" to describe U.S. actions in Viet Nam were keenly aware of the echo of Nuremberg. This exercise sounds shocking today in light of the "rehabilitation" of the Viet Nam war veteran, and our current tendency to define him as a victim, rather than as an executioner. The difference is marked, and worth attention, as the comparison was sometimes made by the GI himself:
They wanted to call us heroes for serving the country. The offer us recognition and honor, even a national monument. Heroes for serving a country that burned down villages and shot anything that moved. Recognition for being the pawn and agents of a ruthless death machine.... Should we pin medals on the chests of the guards at Auschwitz! Should there be a cheering ticker-tape parade for the flight crews that dropped atomic death on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or fire-bombed Dresden! Perhaps we should build a monument to the nun-murdering troops of the Salvadoran National Guard or to the National Guard at Kent state.
"Most American soldiers in Viet-Nam do not question the orders that lead them to raze villages and wipe out men, women and children for the 'crime' of living in Viet Cong-controlled or infiltrated areas," wrote Eric Norden. "To many critics of the war this 'new breed of Americans' bears a disquieting resemblance to an old breed of Germans." Jean-Paul Sartre firmly stated that the Viet Nam war met all of Hitler's criteria: "Hitler killed the Jews because they were Jews. The armed forces of the United States torture and kill men, women and children in Vietnam merely because they are Vietnamese. Whatever lies or euphemisms the government may thing up, the spirit of genocide is in the minds of the soldiers." Even satirist Art Hoppe made the connection in a cartoon depicting a German psychiatrist counseling his patient—a participant in the My Lai massacre—to repeat three times a day: "I didn't know what was going on. These things happen in war. I was only following orders as a good American. Our soldiers are good American boys. The war is to save the world from Communism. Our leaders were wrong. The unfortunate victims were members of an inferior race." In February of 1971, hundreds of
Vietnam combat veterans gathered in Detroit to hold hearings on war crimes. The
testimony of these Winter Soldiers was published in the Congressional Record on April 6, 1971, and filled over 100 pages. Similar
hearings were held in other cities. All of these veterans admitted to
committing or witnessing acts of atrocity, and several compared themselves or
other Americans to Nazis.
These anecdotes now seem unreal. U.S. soldiers were hailed triumphantly by the American public when they returned from war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and the Viet Nam veteran as icon is firmly established in the American heroic tradition. Comparisons between American soldiers and Nazis are now jarring and incredible. How has the rehabilitation of the image of the American soldier been accomplished? Why have combat veterans of the Viet Nam war, like poet, novelist and peace activist W.D. Ehrhart been "drowned out by the cheerful cadences of prodigal sons on parade...in faded fatigues... [waving] to the cheering crowd"?
Marvin Gettleman, et al., offer us one explanation. It was politically
expedient, they assert, for the dominant U.S. political interests to attempt to
rewrite history after the Viet Nam war.
... [B]y the late 1970s, [the] national consensus of "No more Vietnams" was becoming a major obstacle for the US government, which was stepping up its intervention in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, preparing to reinstitute draft registration, and initiating the most colossal military buildup in US history.... [I]t was necessary to rewrite history once again. Hence, a new body of writings emerged (known by the collective term 'revisionism") which sought to return to the myths that had been dispelled by the knowledge we had gained at such a terrifying price.
at al., do mention briefly that popular film productions and the mass media
appeared to cooperate in the revisionary venture, but they offer us no
explanation of the mechanism by which such a radical erasure of history was
effected. Nor does their theory that powerful interests conspired to rewrite
history account for the fact that even long-time liberals have been indoctrinated
in the new history of the Viet Nam war and the role of the U.S. soldier in the
Davies, journalist and champion of the students comprising the Kent 25 (injured
students and relatives of the four students murdered by the National Guard at
Kent State University on May 4, 1971), was able, in 1991, to equate the Kent
State dead with the soldiers killed in the Viet Nam war. In this article, Davies asserts that "there had never been any difference between these... victims of forces beyond their control, only what President Nixon had wanted us to see." Davies' desire to see the soldier as victim was new—there is no hint of it in his 1974 speech, "Four Students." At that time the combat soldier in Viet Nam would more likely have been analogous to the murderous National Guardsmen of Ohio in the minds of most critics of the Kent State shootings, while the protesters would have resided in quite a different category—perhaps more closely aligned with National Liberation Front fighters or civilians in Viet Nam. This creation of the larger category of "victims" (typical of post-1981 thinking) elides the category of Viet Nam veterans and active duty servicemen who protested the war, and who actively defied the directives of President Johnson and Nixon.
William Gibson, in his well-documented analysis The Perfect War: Technowar
in Vietnam, provides us with a useful analysis of the process of erasure and revision. Gibson notes that by the mid-1970s "no one wanted to talk about the war."
Somehow... even in news reports about Vietnam veterans, the war itself was never revisited. Debates around the dioxin Agent Orange and post-Vietnam stress-disorder cases made their official appearances in claims for medical benefits or for special consideration in legal contexts. The war thus disappeared as a topic for study and political consideration and instead became dispersed and institutionalized in the complex of medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses. It was if a new series of medical and judicial problems with no traceable origin had appeared in American society. Or rather, although it was acknowledged that Vietnam was the origin, once the word "Vietnam" was mentioned, the war itself was dismissed and discussion moved on to how an institution could solve the problem.... In this way the war became progressively displaced and repressed at the same time it was written about.
Gibson, a sociologist, suggests that the structure of American society shapes our abilities to listen to or to disregard certain kinds of stories. We privilege those who inhabit the top of the "stratification system" because they hold "a virtual monopoly on socially accepted 'scientific' knowledge." He draws on Foucault to explain that the testimony of combat veterans is "subjugated knowledge," and argues that combat veteran writing is marginalized because it is written as narrative, because one veteran's work can be isolated from another's, because it is often colloquial rather than formal, because it is obscene, because it is uncivil.
As a society, we have effectively inhibited Viet Nam veterans from speaking in terms other than those we have defined as acceptable, silencing those whose stories fall outside the boundaries of convention. Harry Haines, a scholar of communications and mass media and a Viet Nam war veteran, argues, "Administrative power offers a therapeutic position for Vietnam veterans, 'hailing' them as World War II heroes and demonstrating hegemony's ability to smooth over ideological contradictions, to make them seem natural and right..."
Haines explains that Viet Nam veterans are given a clear message, a new status
produced for them by hegemony:
The message identifies the veterans' burdens as "little solace," the lack of compassion and acceptance given to combat veterans by their countrymen once the war was lost. The lack of solace is further specified as a characteristic of Americans "unable to distinguish between" a generalized abhorrence for war and "the stainless patriotism" of Vietnam veterans. The contradictions of the veterans' firsthand experience, the war's "counterfeit universe" are explained as "philosophical disagreements" in the process of resolution. Where disagreement existed, a consensus is manufactured which attempts to integrate the Vietnam veteran with other veterans and to normalize the Vietnam war in terms of other wars. For the veteran, the price of reintegration is the revision of memory to coincide with hegemony's newly produced consensus. Many veterans are willing to accept these terms, a measure of their postwar isolation. Hegemony structures "the field of other possible actions" open to some veterans, who bring their interpretation of Vietnam in line with prevailing interpretations.... In this way, Vietnam veterans may become... "fully paid-up members of the consensus club," the sign of the reintegrated society.
The voices of warrior-poets such as W.D. Ehrhart and combat veteran survivors with similar messages are drowned out because they cannot be incorporated into the process that critic Michael Clark defines as the transformation of "individual experience into communal redemption":
... [T]he evolution of the character of the veteran... suggests a more profound continuity between the dream and the memory than is apparent in the shifting winds of public taste and political doctrine. As the veteran's participation in the Vietnam war ceased being represented as an obstacle to his assimilation and started to appear as a moral corrective and strategic support for the social order, the historical contradictions that the war raised within the traditional forms of social coherence were transformed into psychological conflicts in the veteran's sense of continuity between his present position in society and his past actions in the war....
An individual is traumatized by a life-threatening event that displaces his or her preconceived notions about the world. Trauma is enacted in a liminal state, outside the bounds of "normal" human experience, and the subject is radically ungrounded. Accurate representation of trauma can never be achieved without recreating the event since, by its very definition, trauma lies beyond the bounds of "normal" conception. Textual representationsliterary, visual, oral—are mediated by language and do not have the impact of the traumatic experience. Chaim Shatan, psychiatrist and pioneer of trauma research, explains that the victim enters the catastrophic environment of trauma through the "membrane" that separates sense from nonsense, narrative from chaos, and "Reality is torn asunder leaving no boundaries and no guideposts." There is, in this case, no substitute for experience—only being is believing.
The process of translation of traumatic experience into text is best understood in terms of Émile Beneviste's description of the dual semiotic and semantic functions of language. Beneviste argues that "the sign" must be recognized, while "the discourse" must be understood: "The difference between recognition and comprehension refers to two distinct faculties of the mind: that of discerning the identity between the previous and the present, and that of discerning, on the other hand, the meaning of a new enunciation." Beneviste also notes that "two systems can have the same sign in common without being, as a result, synonymous or redundant; that is to say, the functional difference of a sign alone matters, not its substantial identity."
who have passed through the trauma membrane are equipped with virtually the
same set of signs as their nontraumatized peers. As Paul Fussell notes in his
landmark study, The Great War and Modern Memory, the English language is "rich in terms like blood,
terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,
as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his
hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like...." Fussell believes that communication is hindered only because the audiences refuses to listen, that we have "made unspeakable mean
indescribable; it really means nasty."
The problem, however, is much more complex. Traumatic experience catalyzes a
transformation of meaning in the signs individuals use to represent their
experiences. Words such as blood, terror, agony and madness gain new meaning within the context of the trauma, and survivors emerge from the traumatic environment with a new set of definitions. One the surface, language appears unchanged—survivors still use the word terror, non-traumatized audiences read and understand the
word terror, and the dislocation of meaning is invisible until one pays attention to the cry of survivors, "What can we do to share our visions? Our words can only evoke the incomprehensible. Hunger, thirst, fear, humiliation, waiting, death; for us these words hold different realities. This is the ultimate tragedy of the victims."
At the moment it is narrated by survivors, the traumatic experience is reinscribed to metaphor. In Barthes' terms, such signifiers are polysemous, implying a "floating chain" of signifieds among which readers may "choose some and ignore others." Barthes believes that "traumatic images are bound up with an uncertainty (an anxiety) concerning the meaning of objects or attitudes. Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs...." Barthes is, I believe, wrong in his claim that readers may" choose" from a variety of meanings—there are meanings available to survivor-readers that are not available to nontraumatized readers. Furthermore, the ability to "read" words like terror may extend across
traumas, so that the combat veteran
of the Viet Nam war responds viscerally to the transformed signs used by the
survivor of the concentration camp since they mirror his or her own traumatic experience,
while the nontraumatized reader will come away with a different meaning
Survivors have the metaphorical tools to interpret representations of traumas similar to their own. The representations may trigger "flashbacks" in the survivor-reader. However, the reexperience of trauma in the reader will always be derived from the reader's own traumatic experience, and not from the read experience of the survivor-author. Like the survivor, the nontraumatized reader has at his or her disposal the entire cultural "library" of symbol, myth, and metaphor, but he or she does not have access to the meanings of the sign that invoke traumatic memory. The profusion of available images allows for a variety of readings, which are accessible in different ways to different audiences. Multiple meanings encoded in particular "loaded" signifiers (blood, terror, murder) characterize survivor writing, and distinguish it from other genres.
The writings of trauma survivors comprise a distinct "literature of trauma." Literature of trauma is defined by the identity of its author. Literature of trauma holds at its center the reconstruction and recuperation of the traumatic experience, but it is also actively engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the writings and representations of nontraumatized authors. It comprises a marginal literature similar to that produced by feminist, African-American, and queer writers—in fact, it often overlaps with these literatures, so that distinct subgenres of literature of trauma may be found in each of these communities. Theories that encompass such marginal literatures are necessarily predicated on the critic's belief in her ability to discern an author's relationship to the group in question. Joan W. Scott's suggestions for an agenda that combines poststructuralist theory and feminism can easily be applied to a reading of literature of trauma:
The point is to find ways to analyze specific "texts"—not only books and documents but also utterances of any kind and in any medium, including cultural practices—in terms of specific historical and contextual meanings.... The questions that must be answered in such analysis, then, are how, in what specific contexts, among which specific communities of people, and by what textual and social processes has meaning been acquired? More generally, the questions are: How do meanings change? How have some meanings emerged as normative and others have been eclipsed or disappeared? What do these processes reveal about how power is constituted and operates?
Only after we have contextualized the trauma can we separate the outside interpretations of "Other People's Trauma" (OPT) from the narratives of the survivors and successfully "read" the revisions of that trauma.
critic of trauma literature must determine: the composition of the community of
trauma survivors; the nature of the trauma inflicted upon members of the
community; the composition of the community of perpetrators; the relationship
between the communities of victims and perpetrators; and the contemporary
social, political and cultural location of the community of survivors.
approach of most postmodernist critics is inappropriate when applied to reading
the literature of trauma. Postmodern critics have been concerned with the
problematics of reading. As professional readers, it is in their interest to put forward the argument that any text, properly read, can be "understood." Those among them who do not claim to be able to divine the author's intent simply claim that an author's intent is irrelevant. It's obvious that this approach won't work for the literatures of trauma. The act of writing, though perhaps less accessible to the critic, is as important as the
act of reading.
I am far from the first person to notice that the author's identity matters. In 1939 Jorge Luis Borges penned an absurd ficcion—"Pierre Menard, Author of Don
Quixote"—in which he described the process by which Menard recreated Cervantes' tale. Menard's imaginary novel is not, as Borges is quick to note, a contemporary rewrite of the Spanish knight's adventure, but, word for word, "the Don Quixote." Borges' story is narrated by a literary critic, and the centerpiece is the critic's comparison of two passages which, of course, are the same word for word:
... truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.
"Written in the seventeenth century, written by the 'ingenious layman' Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical eulogy of history," notes the critic. Menard's version, he believes, has greater depth, though it is less fluent:
mother of truth; the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what took place; it is what we think took place.... Equally vivid is the contrast in styles. The archaic style of Menard—in the last analysis, a foreigner—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles easily the ordinary Spanish of his time.
Though Borges' tale is fanciful, it suggests not only that the reader's interpretation of a work is affected by his or her ability to contexualize, to cross disciplines, to couple history and philosophy with literature, but that two writers writing may pen the same words and tell entirely different stories. The critic of literature of trauma may extract the moral that two people can represent the same experience, using similar imagery and descriptive terminology and create literary works with entirely different meanings—meanings that are located not in the words themselves, but in the interaction between writer and text, between reader and text, between reader and writer.
work of the critic of the literature of trauma is both to identify and
explicate literature by members of survivor groups, and to deconstruct the
process by which the dominant culture codifies their traumatic experience.
Survivors bear witness in a social, cultural, political, and historical
context. Their location within the complex network of communal relations
determines the reception of their testimony and the interpretive and
revisionary pressures that will be brought to bear on their traumatic experience.
Members of opposing interest groups will attempt to appropriate traumatic
experiences while survivors will struggle to retain control of those
representations. The winner of this battle over meaning will determine the way
in which the experience is codified.
Representation of traumatic experience is ultimately a tool in the hands of those who shape public perceptions and national myth. In contemporary U.S. culture, this battle over codification and appropriation of trauma is glaringly obvious when one examines the interaction between testimony and cultural representation of institutionalized sexualized violence against women and children. Rape, sexual abuse, and incest are woven into the fabric of contemporary American culture. Rapists are protected by a criminal justice system that demands that rape victims "prove" that intercourse was not consensual. Courts are unlikely to accept that intercourse was forced if the accused is an acquaintance of the victim, particularly if he is an ex-lover or boyfriend. In some states, wives are not allowed to bring charges of rape against their husbands unless they are legally separated. Though most rapes are committed by
men who are known to the victim, women who are raped by strangers are most
likely to secure the conviction of their rapist.
especially acquaintance rape, is widely acknowledged to be an under reported
crime. Rape victims are aware that the legal system does not work in their
favor, and they fear the social, psychological, and personal consequences of
prosecuting rapists. When women do report acquaintance rape, police frequently
refuse to forward these reports for possible prosecution. Prosecutors, in turn, systematically dismiss or downgrade acquaintance rape cases. And even if rape cases do make it to trial, juries tend to be prejudiced against the prosecution, and to be lenient with the defendant if they believe that the victim indulged in "contributory behavior"—including "hitchhiking, dating, and talking with men at parties."
Men who sexually abuse children are also virtually immune from prosecution. Children lack the independence and power to bring charges against them. Some children are abused before they are even old enough to speak. Children who can speak, and who describe the abuse they suffer are frequently disbelieved. A significant part of the psychological establishment believes that young female children fantasize sexual interactions with their fathers or stepfathers, and that such fantasies are part of "normal" development.
Prosecution of abusive men is difficult or impossible without corroborating
evidence. The motives of wives or girlfriends who accuse their partners of
sexually abusing their children are often questioned by civil courts, and their
charges are looked upon with suspicion. And when abuse if found by the court,
children are often placed in foster homes where they may again be abused by
other adult males.
is so rarely reported, and prosecution is so rarely effective that most
incestuous relationships are finally ended by the victim when she becomes old
enough, independent enough, and powerful enough to break away from her abuser.
Some abused children may never live to reach that point: a 1983 study found
that 38% of incest survivors had
attempted to kill themselves. We will never know how many children
and young adults have taken their own lives to escape sexual abuse.
Popular culture stereotypes reinforce the legal apparatus in protecting the men who rape women or sexually abuse children. Films, mainstream novels, and advertising reinforce the idea that women who say "no" mean "yes," and that children are willing partners in the sexual adventures of grown men.
Pornography, a $10 billion per year industry, obsessively focuses on rape as a
pleasurable experience for the male rapist, and often casts female children in
the role of the seducer.
and girls are taught to believe that they provoke men into assaulting them, and
that they will bring pain and humiliation upon themselves by dressing, speaking,
or acting in a provocative manner. They are taught that there is a thin line
between seduction and rape, and that it is their responsibility to keep men
from crossing that line. Most women do not walk alone at night if they can
avoid it. But the demands of daily life, of child care, and of holding a job,
make it impossible for women to entirely avoid being exposed and vulnerable.
All women run the risk of being raped or assaulted.
Unlike the European Jew forty years after the Holocaust, or the combat veteran returned from war, the American woman lives in fear of an enemy who stalks her today. Her enemy is free to assault her on the street, in her place of work, or in her own home. He may attack her once or repeatedly. If she hides from him, he may find her. If she asks for the protection of the authorities, he may have the right to demand she be returned to his control. If she tries to press charges, he will be protected by a legal, political and social system that is biased against her. Sociologist Anthony Wilden has emphasized that "if there is one class of individuals who cannot rely on their community for self-defense it is women—and after them, teenage girls and children. The reason for that is that it is their own community that attacks them."
All American women are threatened with violence, regardless of their race or class, just as all Jews were in danger in Nazi Germany. Money and connections can help only to a point: a woman alone in Central Park after dark is a potential target whether she is an advertising executive or a welfare mother. More hue and cry may be raised by the press and citizenry when the victim is upper-class, and prosecution is more likely if she is white and her attackers are men of color. Regardless, the first question any court will ask is: "What was she doing alone down there at night?"
Often victims find themselves completely without support. Social and legal institutions, churches, and frequently even a victim's own family and friends may place the blame on her shoulders. Dr. Natalie Shainess, a psychiatrist who works with sexually abused children, notes: "It calls to mind the problem of Jews in Nazi Germany: how many Germans would go against their own interests to help? What hope was there? Who would listen, who would believe?"
In this hostile climate, what does it mean when women bear witness to sexual assault? To whom do they testify? Do they believe that men will hear them and go against their own interests, reduce their own power, in order to make the world a safer place for women? Or do they think that by speaking to their sisters they can organize against sexual assault, take power by force? Who is their audience? Do men read incest and rape narratives and, if so, for what purposes? How are women's stories of sexual assault packaged and sold? Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to begin to answer these questions. There simply did not exist a body of rape and incest testimony to examine. That situation has recently changed, mainly due to the increased activity of the feminist movement, which has created a small but supportive community within which women can safely tell their stories.
Consider the striking similarity between Audre Lorde's explanation for why she writes, and John Ketwig's inscription in the prologue of his narrative, ... And A Hard Rain Fell. Lorde is a black, lesbian feminist and Ketwig is a white, male Viet Nam combat veteran. Both of them express sentiments uncannily akin to Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. "The inability to express your experience," Appelfeld explains, "and the feeling of guilt combined together and created silence.... Not everyone remained within that isolation. The desire to tell... broke out and took on strange and different forms of expression. Since new words had not been invented, people made use of the old ones, which had served them before."
"I write," explains Lorde
for myself and my children and for as many people as possible who can read me, who need to hear what I have to say—who need to use what I know.... I write for these women for whom a voice has not yet existed, or whose voices have been silenced. I don't have the only voice or all of their voices, but they are a part of my voice, and I am a part of theirs.
I wanted my wife to know all I was feeling. I hoped someday my kids would read it and understand.... This story became a book simply because so many Vietnam vets pleaded with me to make it public. Many are still searching for words. Our families and loved ones have waited so long for an explanation of the enormous changes the war crafted into our personalities.... I don't want my children to see the world I have known.
Literature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it "real" both to the victim and to the community. Such writing serves both as validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized author. Des Pres reminds us, "Displacement is the goal of any story, in degree; all fiction aims to usurp the real world with a world that is imagined. Desires for affirmation and release
cross subgenre lines, manifesting themselves in writings by combat veterans,
Holocaust survivors, and rape and incest survivors. They are also manifested in
the work of many feminist writers who are not specifically identified (either
by themselves or others) as trauma survivors.
My goal is to present a coherent rendering of the relationships between individual trauma and cultural interpretation, using as my focus the Holocaust, the Viet Nam war, and the phenomenon of sexualized violence against women. In order to do so, I must create a rich context for each trauma and its representations, and let nothing go without saying. Historian and literary critic Jonathan Morse wrote, "On the page, history is present in every text, 'historical' or not."
We must seek complexity, rather than avoid it:
Words that come out of history are complicated; they are cluttered with etymology and connotation. And that slows us down when we try to understand them.... But words that make up their histories as they come into existence leap at us unchaperoned. First they are in our leader's mouth, then they are in ours. It is a wonderful gift. We can hum along with the words passing through us; we can clap, we can jump. And as we respond to the music we make, we will feel ourselves coming into being. We will be wrong, but we will believe that we know at last who we are.
search for complexity begins with the paradigm case of the Holocaust, the Ur-trauma in the U.S. mindscape.